Here’s a heads-up, which may come as a shock to some: radical activism is not about seeing how many four-letter words you can cram on a placard. It’s not about spray-painting BLM on a Starbucks, or breaking restaurant windows with your skateboard because “fuck capitalism.” And it’s not yelling A.C.A.B. (All Cops Are Bastards) at police, especially if that yell springs from a white mouth — a mouth that can yell that at cops precisely because it’s white. At that point, it’s just an ugly display of privilege and arrogance masquerading as something meaningful. It’s performative revolution, not the real thing. Frankly, as we prepare to enter the second year of the recent and vital upsurge in the movement for racial justice and Black lives, it’s long past time to bring down the curtain on this particular show.
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And contrary to fashionable thinking among some, this is not “tone policing.” To say that one should carefully consider the words one uses or the signs one carries is only tone policing in the way that telling you not to go to work on Monday and scream at your boss or co-workers is tone policing. In other words, it’s pretty decent life advice. Being asked to think before you rage for the sake of personal catharsis is not oppression. It’s strategy. No social movement in the history of the world has succeeded without it, and there has never been even one that accomplished its goals while operating on the assumption that its participants should say whatever is on their minds, whenever they feel like it, without regard to consequence.
Of course, I know the rejoinder. I’ve heard it a hundred times.
“But Tim, that’s elitist ‘respectability politics!’ Working-class Black folks don’t speak like college-educated pundits and shouldn’t be expected to!”
Um, first, who said anything about speaking like pundits?
And second, who said I was talking about working-class and poor Black folks?
Indeed, to suggest that working-class people of color don’t think strategically, but instead, pop off because it’s just the way they are is some racist, classist bullshit one might wish to rethink before claiming to be on the side of the oppressed. In short, the ghost of Fannie Lou Hamer would like a word, please.
From screaming obscenities to tearing up property to setting fires at government buildings, it has overwhelmingly been whites unconnected to the larger racial justice movement who have taken the lead in all things unhelpful. Very little of the performative rage of which I speak here has been the handiwork of Black people. Almost none of it has sprung from the hands and minds of Black movement leaders or activists. And the reason for that is simple: Black folks are well aware they can’t get away with half the bullshit white people can.
Working-class and poor folk of color are some of the most strategic people I’ve ever known. They have to be. You don’t survive broke and Black in America unless you strategize, hustle, and figure out how to work the angles. To suggest that such persons operate from unfiltered emotion is an insult, not to mention wrong. They don’t curse more than others or speak more aggressively, let alone because of some Black or poor norm that white middle-class people just “need to understand,” or “learn to hear.” If anything, it’s white folks who spout off without thinking because we rarely face any consequences for doing so. To claim that one’s concern about tone policing is just an attempt to amplify the authentic voice of the marginalized is paternalistic nonsense, usually said by people who’ve spent a lot of time in critical theory classes using words like epistemology — but not so much time around actual working-class Black folks.
And no, quoting Audre Lorde right now — ya know, the one about the master’s tools never taking apart the master’s house — does not vindictate your rage-gasms either. It only proves that you know how to work the Google machine. Sadly, being able to find a quote doesn’t guarantee you’ll understand it. Are you under the impression that rage and hatred and contempt are not tools of the master? Fascinating. We have 400-plus years of evidence to suggest otherwise, to suggest that indeed these are tools for which they own the patents, but hey, you do you.
None of this is to deny that rage is justified. In the face of racial and economic oppression it is entirely so. And its expression, at least when offered by Black and brown peoples — as opposed to white folks claiming to be their allies but often just cos-playing some nihilistic rebellion fantasy so as to piss off their parents — is understandable. What’s more, even in cases where that rage spills over into property destruction, it is of a very different nature than that which is regularly meted out upon Black and brown bodies by agents of the state. And surely it is disingenuous for anyone to specially lecture folk of color about the importance of non-violence in the face of the daily, systematic violence to which they are subjected and have been for centuries.
That said, just because the rage is justified, even proper, does not vindicate it as a prime political motivator. If liberation is the goal, tactics that further that goal are moral and those that might detract from it are, by definition, morally compromised. Any movement tactic, from sit-ins to voting to community organizing to property destruction must be examined through that lens, at least if effectiveness is what matters. Although white America will find any excuse to oppose movements for racial justice — most have never supported agitation, no matter how polite, if its cause was Black life and liberty — this is still no reason to score own goals for one’s adversaries or render their excuse-making easier.
When it comes to effectiveness, narratives have consequences, and movements have considerable power to craft their own narratives, which is why the terms we use, the slogans we chant, and the signage we carry all matter.
When it comes to slogans like A.C.A.B., the biggest problem isn’t even the optics. The more significant issue is what A.C.A.B., by definition, implies: that the problem is one of bad individuals rather than bad systems. No, it’s not as ridiculous as the right-wing version of this (the few bad apples theory) since the acronym suggests all the apples are rotten. But the gist is similar: these people are the problem. They are bad. They are the issue.
However, that is a fundamentally reactionary position. It’s not progressive, and it’s certainly not worthy of someone who thinks themselves radical. Radical analysis is about systems and structures; in this case, systems that perpetuate injustice. To personalize that which is systemic, to shift focus to individuals, is to bury the lede and lose the benefits of a structural framework.
And what are those? They should be obvious. Although abusive cops should always be held to account for their actions, by crafting our messages around a systemic analysis, we allow folks to hear us without thinking we’re indicting their humanity or that of people they know and love. Focusing on individuals leads to defensive backlash at worst, but at best only encourages a response of guilt or shame, neither of which are liberatory impulses.
Second, by explaining how even decent people can get caught up in bad systems, we place the blame where it belongs and construct a common adversary. That adversary is not cops as individuals but a system of policing created to dominate the have-nots on behalf of the haves. It’s not teachers as individuals, but a school system predicated on inequality so that a few geniuses “can be raked from the rubbish,” as Thomas Jefferson put it. It’s not greedy bosses as individuals but a profit system that so often cultivates the worst of our human impulses.
Not to mention, when we have examples right in front of us that help illustrate the systemic case, why would we torpedo it by throwing around slogans like A.C.A.B? For instance, when Cariol Horne was fired as a Buffalo cop for stopping a white officer from choking a handcuffed Black man, she not only disproved that all cops are bastards, she proved the point about the system being rotten — because she’s the one who got canned. The good cop was run out of policing because the system required it. It was the same for Michael Wood Jr. and Joe Crystal, both former officers in Baltimore whose careers came to an end after demonstrating an intolerance for brutality and corruption in their ranks.
And if the best response you have to cases like these is, “Well, when we say all, we don’t really mean all,” then why say it? Is the snappiness of your slogan more important than effective communication? Is it more important to grab people’s attention than to build the movement? Because if so, ya know what really works for that purpose? It’s not placards at all, or slogans — it’s bombs. But does that mean folks should just start blowing shit up? Of course not. And why? Because however much that would “get people’s attention,” such acts would have both moral and practical implications for the movement.
Words and actions matter. They shape consciousness. They build the capacity for resistance. But they can also embolden one’s enemies when they aren’t chosen with an eye towards effectiveness. Screaming into the void for the sake of letting out frustration might be therapeutic. But it’s never liberated anyone. Trust me, the cops are not afraid of our middle fingers, nor will they likely do anything differently for having been on the receiving end of them.
The system will not bend, let alone break, because some stupid-ass white kids in Eugene smashed restaurant windows, even as Black activists begged them not to because they knew Black folks would get blamed (and they were right). Likewise, the system won’t be transformed by misanthropic anarchist wanna-bes setting fires at the federal building and breaking windows at a Boys and Girl’s Club in Portland. That is not activism. That is theatre. It’s not Paris, 1789. It’s Les Miz, circa 1988.
But this is not entertainment. This is people’s lives.
And for those lives to finally matter in the eyes of the system, we will have to remain focused on that system. Yes, systems are maintained by individuals, so when officers like Derek Chauvin murder under cover of law they must be held accountable. A systemic focus doesn’t let individual killers and abusers off the hook for their actions. But such a focus does recognize how even those individuals are shaped and misshapen by the machinery of which they are a part. If we take our wrath out on the machine’s operators while leaving the conveyor belt in place, we can trust that someone else will come along to crank the gears or push the buttons necessary for its perpetuation.
At which point, we will have accomplished precisely nothing, unless one considers a well-cultivated self-righteousness to be a substantive victory for the movement.
Here’s guessing the people whose lives are on the line won’t be impressed.